Do We Need Central Authority in Arts & Culture?

By Bill Ivey, Director, Curb Center, Vanderbilt University

Like Marian, I'm going to do some digesting overnight and weigh back in tomorrow after some thinking and a few glasses of wine.  But I am pleased that Marian doesn't feel that expressive life automatically tilts away from heritage.  Artistic heritage attached to ethnicity and nationality has certainly been an area of growth within expressive life.  My guess is that much of the at-home music making and dance that have been tracked in recent participation surveys are grounded in community folk traditions, and certainly making this kind of art making part of the big picture is a good thing.

Martha has raised an important question.  I'm not at all certain that the U.S. needs a central cultural authority -- certainly not right now.  But I believe the nation's expressive life has drifted without regard to public purposes in large part because authority in cultural matters is split up and assigned to dozens of government departments and agencies.  Copyright is attached to LC, which also is involved in heritage preservation, as is the Smithsonian Institution.  The FCC attempts to influence the content of broadcasting, and also weighs in on media mergers and acquistions, but it also handles telecommunications.  Trade in cultural goods is aggressively promoted by both the Dept. of Commerce and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and support for cultural nonprofits falls to the NEA, and to a certain extent NEH and IMLS.  Although the FCC may comment on a merger, it is really both the FTC and the Department of Justice who have the final say, and it is the Broadcasting Board of Governors that manages the Voice of America and a number of Arabic-language stations.  The Department of Defense is very involved in community cultural work and in broadcasting, although much of this activity is secret, and the Department of State has an Office of Public Diplomacy managed at the undersecretary level, while the USAID program supports traditional (folk) arts as a vehicle of community development in a number of countries.  The White House Social Office and the Office of the First Lady generate arts-oriented events in the White House, and the Administration's Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs mounts White House conferences.  The Department of Transportation spends money on the arts to beautify highways, and Interior -- through the Park Service -- produces arts events in national parks.  There is a National Council on the Arts, a Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, an IMLS board (they actually have 2), the National Council on the Humanities, and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.  Cultural issues hit Congress through the Judiciary, Commerce, and Interior Committees. The movement of art and artists across borders is controlled by the Dept. of Homeland Security.  And this is by no means a comprehensive list.  The result of course is that policy is made in tiny pieces, without reference to the way one small step in one agency might have significant unintended consequences in the province of another.  Congressional staffers that I know have become very uncomfortable crafting legislation in tiny snippets when they only hear from contending interested parties (record companies vs. radio, for example) and never get to think broadly about whether a proposed action is really in the public interest.

So I don't know if we need a central authority, but we at least need some real communication and coordination among the major players whose individual actions cumulatively shape the character of expressive life.  It would be fascinating and helpful just to get the key policy actors in a room.  Some of these characters, like Homeland Security or Social Security don't see themselves as cultural actors at all, so any coordination would have to start out with some remedial education.

What do others think?  My informal assessment is that this scattershot approach to policy affecting art has made it easy for commercial interests to control broadcasting spectrum, extend the footprint of IP, and generally hand over gobs of authority in cultural matters to self-interested market forces.  If Sony, BMI,Google, NBC, Apple, and Verizon would all object to central authority or coordination, we're probably onto something.

January 28, 2010 1:35 PM | | Comments (1) |


I agree with you, Bill. Your description here and in "Arts, Inc." of how widely distributed arts funding really is caused me to rethink my usual focus on the NEA. The problem that you note is, I think, a real one and is also addressed by Adrian Ellis' question about who speaks for these issues. There seems to be no focused way to introduce a discussion or promote an agenda in the arts. At the same time, this decentralized intellectual milieu is highly centralized and homogeneous geographically and socio-economically. So discussion of the underlying premises of our current arts system is very difficult to promote because the usual players are usually pretty committed to the status quo. We lack a "bully pulpit," and if a central authority could provide it, then I'm willing to play along.


This Conversation Are the terms "Art" and "Culture" tough enough to frame a public policy carve-out for the 21st century? Are the old familiar words, weighted with multiple meanings and unhelpful preconceptions, simply no longer useful in analysis or advocacy? In his book, Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey advances "Expressive Life" as a new, expanded policy arena - a frame sufficiently robust to stand proudly beside "Work Life," "Family Life," "Education," and "The Environment." Is Ivey on the right track, or more

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